N.Y. Chief Deals Blow To Alternative-Assessment Plans
In a setback for opponents of one-shot, "high stakes" tests, New York state Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills last week rejected a bid by about 40 nontraditional schools to substitute individually tailored projects for the English examination the state recently began to require for graduation.
The schools, all but a few in New York City, had fought a high- profile battle backed by officials of the New York City district to avoid the English exam.("Mills To Decide Soon on N.Y. Testing Waivers," Jan. 12, 2000.)
Their failure signals that Mr. Mills, like state education officials elsewhere, is inclined toward uniform standards for high school graduation, even though they are likely to cost some students their diplomas. The prospect that fewer students will graduate from high school has cast the exit exams in a controversial light, both in New York and other states.
But the New York schools do not base their opposition to the state regents' exams on the grounds that the tests will lead to lower graduation rates. Instead, they say their own assessments—which typically involve a portfolio of student work or an exhibition of their skills—are integral to creating alternatives to traditional public schools. The schools, generally known in New York as "alternative schools," also contend that their assessments are more demanding than the state's paper-and-pencil tests.
Besides addressing the schools' request for an exemption from the English exam, Mr. Mills also considered whether the schools should have to administer regents' exams in other subjects. There, his decision included a few bright spots for the consortium of alternative schools.
The decision allows at least some of the schools to graduate students without the state-devised mathematics exam that other students must pass in the coming school year. More important, though, it leaves open the possibility that the alternative schools could win a permanent exemption from graduation exams in math, social studies, science, and foreign languages.
In his six-page decision, Mr. Mills ordered the state education department to undertake a yearlong evaluation of the schools' alternative assessments to see which schools, if any, should be able to continue to use those assessments in subjects other than English.
David Lehman, the principal of the Ithaca Alternative School in Ithaca, N.Y., said the decision was disappointing in that "it is still couched in the language of traditional assessments."
But, he added, "the encouraging part is the commissioner's willingness to meet with the consortium and extend our waiver for a year and a half, during which period our students need to deal only with the English exam." Many of the schools received a five-year waiver from earlier versions of the regents' exams in most subjects in 1995; English was not included.
Still, Mr. Mills wrote that he was unconvinced that the schools' alternative assessments measure students' knowledge of the state curriculum as well as the new exams. "The schools may do this, but it is not evident from the materials" they submitted, he wrote.
Students May Choose
Under a 1995 state law, this year's seniors must pass the regents' new English exam to graduate, and next year's graduating class will be required to pass the tests in both English and math. Tests in other subjects will be introduced over the next few years.
For this school year, Mr. Mills gave seniors at the alternative schools permission to pass either the new English exam or an older competency test "to protect the interest of students now in the 12th grade ... who may have been under the impression that they did not have to prepare" for the new exam.
Harold O. Levy, the interim chancellor of the New York City schools, praised the commissioner's decision, even though Mr. Levy's predecessor, Rudolph F. Crew, had backed the alternative schools. In a prepared statement, Mr. Levy said the judgment represented a good balance between competing considerations.
Meanwhile, in Ithaca, Mr. Lehman said all but two or three of the 38 seniors at his school had already passed one of the state's required English tests. But he stressed that while the English exams might not be the best use of his students' time, they are less to be feared by alternative schools than the other regents' exams because they are unlikely to alter the curriculum.
"All of the other areas are very heavily content- driven, and that becomes the driving force of your curriculum," he said.
Vol. 19, Issue 21, Page 13